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East Timor

East Timor - April 2001

Captain Edward Caricato, USMC

[Editor's Note:  Capt. Caricato wrote the following letter during a six month deployment aboard the USS Boxer, (similar to a miniature aircraft carrier).  He was Executive Officer for a Marine field artillery battery.  Prior to East Timor, they had been to Australia.]

This past week the 11th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) conducted its first "real world" (non-training) operation. We were sent to East Timor to conduct presence operations. A little background; East Timor was a Portuguese colony until the early 1990s. After Portugal pulled out, the government of Indonesia took over. To make a long story short, Indonesia is basically run by a dictator and significant cultural and religious differences existed in East Timor. In the mid 1990's East Timor declared independence from Indonesia. This brought on a very violent reaction from the Indonesian military and the militia of West Timor, spent the better part of the late 1990's ravaging East Timor (your standard rape, pillage, murder and bum behavior). 

Since then the UN has sent coalition forces in to protect East Timor and restore order with the hopes that this will allow their government to get on its feet and begin democratically running the country. Being a pretty big supporter of democratic countries, the U.S. regularly sends forces to East Timor to show our support for their new government. We specifically went in at the request of certain international and U.S. aid organizations but not as part of the U.N. forces. I was glad because I would feel very funny wearing a baby blue beret. To accomplish this the 11th  MEU sent forces ashore to do a myriad of tasks. These ranged from providing medical and dental support to renovating buildings. Yes, many of the Marines replaced their rifles with hammers for this one.

My specific role in the whole thing was a little more what you would think Marines would be doing on foreign shores. I took ashore a detachment of Marines from my battery with some trucks. Our mission was to transport supplies for one of the worksites and provide security at that site. The security was more to prevent the sites getting mobbed when the people saw that we had food, supplies etc. There is also a pretty serious criminal/gang problem in the area we were in. However, pretty much everyone we had contact with was very happy to see us and extremely polite. The only time they got real excited was when they saw soccer balls.

The scene is very hard to describe. It was totally something you would see on TV or in National Geographic. It is definitely a very underdeveloped country and they suffer from about 75% unemployment. The people seemed to be in good health but no one looked overfed. Some spoke very basic English but most spoke a Portuguese dialect
called Tetum. I managed to pick up some of it in the three days we were there. They all really got a kick out of it when we would try to speak to them in their language. One guy actually took my little memo book and drew a person with lines pointing to different parts of the face and body, then wrote the Tetum words for them. He also wrote down how to say all their numbers. That was probably the highlight for me. They were very into having their pictures taken especially when it was a digital camera and you could show them the picture.

I was amazed at how much western/American culture was there. I saw a whole lot of WWF and Bob Marley t-shirts (they all knew and loved "the Rok"). One of my Marines went into a building that had a Backstreet Boys poster in it.

I spent most of the days in a small village near the beach but made several trips into the city of Dili. That was always an event. There are NO traffic laws. I also had the opportunity to take a trip up into the mountains to the town of Dare. That was interesting because the people there were not as used to seeing us so they tended to react a little differently.

All this aside, the thing I will remember the most was the heat. I like to think that I have been in some pretty hot, uncomfortable climates, Charleston in Aug, Quantico, 29 Palms, etc., but this was like nothing I have ever felt. It was so hot and humid that you could sit perfectly still in the shade and still sweat buckets. The nights were even worse because any breeze that was there during the day would stop and it was nothing but humid, stagnant air. I weighed myself when we got back and found that I had lost about 5 lbs in three days. The bugs were also pleasant. There weren't a whole lot and they weren't that big but they did carry malaria.
Aside from all that it was a great experience.

[Continued:  Click on Countries - Singapore]